“The language is created by the culture,” concluded linguist Daniel Everette in his observations of the Pirahã people, native to the Amazon. Mystifying linguists worldwide, the Pirahã have no descriptive words, stories or subordinate clauses. According to Everette, their concern almost exclusively with the present moment accounts for why abstract concepts, elaborate creation myths, are not found in their language as well as why there are very few terms to express the past and the future. Though the intricacies of the Pirahã’s language is not fully understood and has been the source of wide disagreement amongst linguists, there seems to be a strong connection between language and culture.
Language gives us the tools to image, create and form ideologies. What distinguishes human language from forms of communication exhibited by other organisms is that it is boundless. Humans are capable of merging thought, generating new concepts and building complexity infinitely. We employ the ideas that language affords us to change the external world and to form our internal universe through the values we hold.
If the Pirahã’s culture is the physical manifestation of their language, what can the use of language in contemporary discourse teach us about cultures around the world? This edition’s writers touch on this question through various lenses, analyzing how language defines the spheres of politics, technology, history, sports and philosophy.
The power language wields in shaping our perception of the world and those around us can also pose great danger. Sam Mitchell warns us of how divisive rhetoric engenders vast rifts between those we see as part of ‘us’ and people we identify as the ‘other.’ In Fascist Language in American Political Discourse, he highlights the turmoil polarizing language has caused in the past and how its prevalence in the political arena today poses a menace to freedom and equality in the future.
However, in The Press, Polarization and Empathy: Working Towards Unity, Dominic Schlossberg proposes a way to build greater harmony. Challenging the deficiency of compassion exhibited in todays press coverage and the employment of alienating language across the political spectrum, he advocates for empathy in media discourse as a remedy for division.
Sonali Mathur presents another way of surmounting division as he demonstrates the ability of comedy to pierce through barriers regarding issues surrounding culture, race, religion and sexuality. In Conveying Pain Through Comedy, Sonali highlights comedians like Hasan Minhaj, Trevor Noah and Hannah Gadsby as examples of how the language of humor can act as a vehicle of social change, in some cases proving to be more effective than demanding transformation through direct means.
Mahnsee Kurana dissects the demeaning language surrounding accusations of sexual assault. In Women’s Testimony and The Language of Accusation she compares the court cases of Anita Hill in 1991 and of Christine Blassey Ford in 2018. Mahnsee argues that the politicization of testimonies and the demand placed on women to single handedly prove their claim is ultimately destructive.
Disparaging language used to describe women pervades all spheres and the realm of sport offers a poignant example of linguistically upheld gender divisions. In Gender Divides in the Language of International Soccer, Suleikha Sutter draws from personal experience to offer a critique of the ways in which gendered language in soccer relegates female players to a lower status than their male counterparts. She maps out philosophical theories of linguistics and concepts evoked by Simone de Beauvoir to show that discussion around women’s soccer needs to change so that the game, deemed the universal sport, can truly become universal.
The line between understanding, competence and knowledge is often blurred and what we mean when we employ these terms is often taken for granted. Nevertheless, investigating the precise meaning of these words can offer insights into our linguistic operations. Charles Xiao undertakes this task, analyzing “The Meaning of 'Meaning’" by the Philosopher, Hilary Putnam, in his essay Uncovering Understanding in Putnam's Theory of Meaning. Charles Inspects our linguistic processes to uncover what we mean we say we “understand” something.
In The Hybridity of Language: Italian in Argentina and Japanese in Brazil, Jenny Yae charts the history of colonialism and immigration to tell a story behind the diverse composition of language in Brazil and Argentina. She holds a lens to the fascinating ways in which Japanese immigration into Brazil and Italian immigration into Argentina has shaped language in each country's present.
As new languages emerge and some languages dominate, the identity of a nation can be remolded. In English or Urdu: What should Pakistan’s language be? Ali Hassan examines what is at stake as he ponders over what the role of English and Urdu ought to be in Pakistan. Ali analyzes the intersection between language and economic status, offering insights into the complexities of balancing access to resources and cultural recognition in a multi-lingual state.
Where will new forms of digital language take us? Does the language of the digital era, littered with memes, internet abbreviations and dating apps strip away human connection or does it offer a new language by which to express the evolving intricacy of human interaction? Ann Yoon explores these questions in Finding Love as a Native Internet Speaker.